A Monumental and Rare Qianlong Doucai Vase

Rosemary Scott
Independent researcher
Visiting Researcher in Ceramics, Palace Museum, Beijing

This vase, which is being sold by the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute of Utica, New York to benefit the Helen Munson Williams Acquisition Fund, is not only of monumental size and exceptional quality, it also has a wonderful provenance. documented. The vase was purchased by Mrs. J. Watson Williams (born Helen Elizabeth Munson, 1824-1894) on June 9, 1883 from the American Art Galleries at Six East 23rd Street South, Madison Square, New York. An inventory dated March 3, 1888 notes that the vase was in Mrs. Williams’ living room on a pedestal, and a surviving photograph shows it in place.

A letter from the American Art Galleries to Mrs. Williams, dated November 27, 1883, begins:

‘Dear Madam
As promised, we are now giving as much detail as possible about the vases purchased on June 9th.

The large decorated vase is from the K’ien-Lung period around 1736-50. Mr. WT Walters of Baltimore, who has the finest collection of Oriental art in the country, has a vase of the same period which, in our opinion, is the only one which compares favorably with yours. It is shaped like a Pilgrim bottle and was purchased from us.

WT Walters’ Pilgrim’s Bottle (or Moon Bottle) is now in the collection of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore accession number 49.1685 (fig. 1).

The Walters Art Museum website (see https://art.thewalters.org/detail/30829/pilgrim-bottle-with-the-character-shou-long-life/) reports that the bottle was part of the collection of William Thompson Walters (1820-94) or that of his son Henry Walters (1848–1931) before 1898 and was bequeathed to the Walters Art Museum in 1931. The 1883 letter from the American Art Galleries, quoted above, suggests that the bottle entered the collection of William Thompson Walters in November 1883 It is significant that the present vase and the Walters bottle have several things in common: their superb quality, their unusually large size (height: 52.7 cm for the vase and 49.1 cm for the bottle); the fact that their decoration is executed in the complex doucai technique, and the fact that they both have a pair of very similar twisting dragon hilts at the neck. Dragons of this shape and coloration (but with the addition of green manes) also appear on a Qianlong doucai lidded vase from the collection of the Qing Court, now in the Palace Museum, Beijing (shown in Porcelains in polychrome and contrasting colors, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, 38, Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 280-1, no. 256 (fig. 2).

More importantly, there is an entry in the Qing palace records which notes that on the 3rd day of the 11th month in the 36th year of Qianlong (1771 AD) “a pair of Chenghua-four wucai chilong-handled tianqiu zun was introduced by Yilinge to Yanxindian.

At the moment doucai the goods were often called Chenghua-kiln wucai, because the doucai decoration was so closely linked to the revered reign of Chenghua. During Emperor Qianlong’s reign, the Yangxindian (Hall of Mental Cultivation) was one of the most important halls in the Forbidden City, where the Emperor conducted state affairs. Yilinge served as superintendent from the 33rd to the 37th year of Qianlong’s reign (1768-1772).

Professor Peter Lam conducted detailed research on the shape of reign marks during the reign of Qianlong, and the reign mark on the present vase agrees most closely with the style it denotes “type 6” (see Peter YK Lam, ‘Towards a Dating Frame for Qianlong Imperial Porcelain’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramics Company, flight. 74, 2009-2010, p. 24). Lam estimates that this style of reign mark in underglaze blue six-character seal script was applied to imperial porcelains between about 1750 and 1790, which would correspond to the 1771 date for the vase.

It is very rare to find a vase of this massive size with doucai decoration. As a decorative technique doucai was both difficult and expensive. After discarding and drying the vessel, fine underglaze cobalt blue outlines were painted onto the unfired porous body. As the cobalt immediately soaked into the unfired clay, any errors could not be rectified. The vessel was then given a transparent porcelain glaze and fired. After the fired piece had cooled, overglaze enamel colors were carefully applied within the underglaze blue outlines and the piece fired again at a lower temperature. As every shot would have produced failures and large ships tended to be more susceptible to warping and splitting, it would have been expensive to create large doucai ships that met high Imperial standards. The current vase also includes gold decoration.

It is telling that the Palace Museum in Beijing appears to have published only one Qianlong doucai vase (decorated with tribute bearers) which is larger than the current vase at 71.5 cm. (shown in Porcelains in polychrome and contrasting colors, The Complete Collection of Treasures from the Palace Museum, flight. 38, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 274, no. 251). Even the famous Qianlong doucai dragon moon flask in the Palace Museum (illustrated by E. S. Rawski and J. Rawson (eds.) in China The Three Emperors 1662-1795, London, 2005, p. 294-5, no. 217) is, at 49.5 cm. tall, smaller than the current vase, while the exceptionally tall Qianlong doucai charger, decorated with the eight Buddhist emblems, from the Imperial Collection of the Nanjing Museum (illustrated in Qing imperial porcelain from the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns, Nanjing, 1995, no. 104) and an almost identical charger in the Shanghai Museum (see Imperial porcelain from the Shanghai Museum, The Hague, 2011, p. 102-3, no. 71) are only 50.7 cm in diameter. and 51 cm., respectively -both smaller than the vase. Only the famous Qianlong doucai bottle with a drawing of a farmer plowing his fields (inspired by the 1696 Yuzhi Gengzhi youImperially Commissioned Pictures of Tilling and Weaving) in the collection of the Tianjin Museum of Art (shown in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan taoci juan, Taipei, 1993, p. 442, no. 936) and the Taber family tianqiuping vase from the Philbrook Museum of art, sold by Christie’s Hong Kong May 30, 2018, lot 8888 (fig. 3) are comparable in size to the current Williams Vase.

At first glance, the decoration of the current vase appears to be composed of intricate and exotic floral scrolls. However, closer examination reveals that many Ruyi heads were also incorporated into the design. the Ruyi pattern, based on the shape of a lingzhi mushroom, indicates a wish for “all as you wish” and was a popular motif for imperial birthdays. On this vase Ruyi bands can be seen around the lip of the vase as well as at the neck-shoulder junction. They also appear at a number of points within the floral scrolls themselves. Plus four bold golden swastikas, pale ?, were applied to the body of the vase. This Buddhist symbol entered China from India and in 693 AD was declared the source of all good luck by Empress Wu. In later dynasties it became a popular symbol of good luck. The combination of the Ruyi and the pale symbols supports the likelihood that this magnificent vase was produced for an imperial anniversary.


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